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Keyboard Warriors -why people will say things online but not face to face

It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.

On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world. We might call this toxic disinhibition.

On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavoury needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.

What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people, one or two of them produces the lion's share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect. In my book Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric, I expand on these ingredients that contribute to the ODE.

You Don't Know Me (dissociative anonymity)

As you move around the internet, most of the people you encounter can't easily tell who you are. System operators and some technologically savvy, motivated users may be able to detect your e-mail or internet address, but for the most part people only know what you tell them about yourself. If you wish, you can keep your identity hidden. As the word "anonymous" indicates, you can have no name - at least not your real name. That anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up. Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don't have to own their behaviour by acknowledging it within the full context of who they "really" are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn't have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviours "aren't me at all." In psychology this is called "dissociation."

You Can't See Me (invisibility)

In many online environments other people cannot see you. As you browse through web sites, message boards, and even some chat rooms, people may not even know you are there at all - with the possible exception of web masters and other users who have access to software tools that can detect traffic through the site, assuming they have the inclination to keep an eye on you, one of maybe hundreds or thousands of users. Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn't.

This power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity, because anonymity is the concealment of identity. But there are some important differences. In text communication such as e-mail, chat, blogs, and instant messaging, others may know a great deal about who you are. However, they still can't see or hear you - and you can't see or hear them. Even with everyone's identity visible, the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect. You don't have to worry about how you look or sound when you say (type) something. You don't have to worry about how others look or sound when you say something. Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can slam the breaks on what people are willing to express. In psychoanalysis, the analyst sits behind the patient in order remain a physically ambiguous figure, without revealing any body language or facial expression, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants, without feeling inhibited by how the analyst is physically reacting. In everyday relationships, people sometimes avert their eyes when discussing something personal and emotional. It's easier not to look into the other's face. Text communication offers a built-in opportunity to keep one's eyes averted.

See You Later (asynchronicity)

In e-mail and message boards, communication is asynchronous. People don't interact with each other in real time. Others may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to reply to something you say. Not having to deal with someone's immediate reaction can be disinhibiting. In real life, it would be like saying something to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when you're willing and able to hear the response. Immediate, real-time feedback from others tends to have a very powerful effect on the ongoing flow of how much people reveal about themselves. In e-mail and message boards, where there are delays in that feedback, people's train of thought may progress more steadily and quickly towards deeper expressions of what they are thinking and feeling. Some people may even experience asynchronous communication as "running away" after posting a message that is personal, emotional, or hostile. It feels safe putting it "out there" where it can be left behind. In some cases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, aptly describes it, the person may be participating in an "emotional hit and run."

It's All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)

Absent f2f cues combined with text communication can have an interesting effect on people. Sometimes they feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person's message might be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that person magically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche. Of course, we may not know what the other person's voice actually sounds like, so in our head we assign a voice to that companion. In fact, consciously or unconsciously, we may even assign a visual image to what we think that person looks like and how that person behaves. The online companion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, a character that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by our expectations, wishes, and needs. Because the person may even remind us of other people we know, we fill in the image of that character with memories of those other acquaintances.

As the character now becomes more elaborate and "real" within our minds, we may start to think, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that the typed-text conversation is all taking place within our heads, as if it's a dialogue between us and this character in our imagination - even as if we are authors typing out a play or a novel. Actually, even when it doesn't involve online relationships, many people carry on these kinds of conversations in their imagination throughout the day. People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or very honestly confronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality IS one's imagination. Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry in which a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace is a stage and we are merely players.

When reading another's message, it's also possible that you "hear" that person's words using your own voice. We may be subvocalizing as we read, thereby projecting the sound of our voice into the other person's message. Perhaps unconsciously, it feels as if I am talking to/with myself. When we talk to ourselves, we are willing to say all sorts of things that we wouldn't say to others!

It's Just a Game (dissociative imagination)

If we combine solipsistic introjection with the escapability of cyberspace, we get a slightly different force that magnifies disinhibition. People may feel that the imaginary characters they "created" exist in a different space, that one's online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, a dream world, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. They split or "dissociate" online fiction from offline fact. Emily Finch, an author and criminal lawyer studying identity theft in cyberspace, has suggested that some people see their online life as a kind of game with rules and norms that don't apply to everyday living (pers. comm., 2002). Once they turn off the computer and return to their daily routine, they believe they can leave that game and their game-identity behind. Why should they be held responsible for what happens in that make-believe play world that has nothing to do with reality? After all, it isn't that different than blasting away at your pals in a shoot-em up video game... or so some people might think, perhaps unconsciously.

Although anonymity tends to amplify dissociative imagination, dissociative imagination and dissociative anonymity usually differ in the complexity of the dissociated part of oneself. Under the influence of anonymity, the person may try to be invisible, to become a non-person, resulting in a reducing or simplifying of identity. During dissociative imagination, the self that is expressed, but split-off, tends to be more elaborate.

We're Equals (minimizing authority)

While online a person's status in the face-to-face world may not be known to others and it may not have as much impact as it does in the face-to-face world. If people can't see you or your surroundings, they don't know if you are the president of a major corporation sitting in your expensive office, or some "ordinary" person lounging around at home in front of the computer. Even if people do know something about your offline status and power, that elevated position may have little bearing on your online presence and influence. In most cases, everyone on the internet has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself. Everyone - regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. - starts off on a level playing field. Although one's status in the outside world ultimately may have some impact on one's powers in cyberspace, what mostly determines your influence on others is your skill in communicating (including writing skills), your persistence, the quality of your ideas, and your technical know-how.

People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure. A fear of disapproval and punishment from on high dampens the spirit. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship - with the appearances of "authority" minimized - people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.

According to traditional Internet philosophy, everyone is an equal: Peers share ideas and resources. In fact, the net itself is engineered with no centralized control. As it grows, with a seemingly endless potential for creating new environments, many people see themselves as independent-minded explorers. This atmosphere and philosophy contribute to the minimizing of authority.

Personality Variables

The disinhibition effect is not the only factor that determines how much people open up or act out in cyberspace. The strength of underlying feelings, needs, and drive level has a big influence on how people behave. Personalities also vary greatly in the strength of defence mechanisms and tendencies towards inhibition or expression. People with histrionic styles tend to be very open and emotional. Compulsive people are more restrained. The online disinhibition effect will interact with these personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person's baseline (offline) behaviour, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.

The TRUE Self?

Does the disinhibition effect release inner needs, emotions, and attributes that dwell beneath surface personality presentations? Does it reveal your "true self." For example, a woman with repressed anger unleashes her hostility online, thereby showing others how she really feels. Or a shy man openly expresses his hidden affection for his cyberspace companion.

Some people do report being more like their true self in cyberspace. If personality is constructed in layers, with a core or true self buried beneath surface defenses and the seemingly superficial roles of everyday social interactions, then does the disinhibition effect release that true self?

This is a tempting conclusion. In fact, the very notion of a true self is tempting because it is useful in helping people articulate their experiences in how and what they express to others about themselves. The concept also works well, in a humanistic fashion, as a motivational tool in the process of self-actualization.

However, a comprehensive psychological as well as philosophical analysis reveals complexities in this thing called self that stretch far beyond this tempting notion. In an in-depth exploration of the online disinhibition effect, the idea of a true self is too ambiguous, arbitrary, and rudimentary to serve as a useful concept.

Personal and cultural values: Personal and cultural values often dictate what we consider the true and false aspects of who we are. We more readily accept as valid those attributes that we regard as positive. An unpleasant aspect of one's personality is not really "me." However, sexual and aggressive tendencies, as Freud noted, are basic components of personality too, as are the psychological defences designed to control them.

Personal and cultural values may also label the usually polite persona that we present to others during everyday living as superficial or false. However, this persona is the product of years of social and psychological development. As a critical component of the ego's construction and functioning, it is essential to interpersonal survival and no less important or true than other components of intrapsychic structure.

While online people may feel they have more opportunities to present themselves as they would like to present themselves, particularly in the carefully composed text of asynchronous communication. They may have more chances to convey thoughts and emotions that go "deeper" than the seemingly superficial persona of everyday living. These opportunities are very valuable aspects of cyberspace, but not necessarily evidence of a more true self. What we reveal about ourselves spontaneously, often right on the surface for others to see but without our being consciously awareness of it, may be just as real and true.

Some people are not fully satisfied with their in-person relationships. Perhaps they don't have opportunities to develop many relationships, or those that did develop turned out to be unfulfilling. In cyberspace they may find the companions they need. They feel more authentic in those online relationships, and this becomes a viable lifestyle alternative. On the other hand, some people who need to deny or rationalize the unfulfilling quality of their in-person relationships may resort to a personal philosophy that idealizes the disinhibition effect and the notion that the true self appears online.

The inhibiting self: The concept of disinhibition may mistakenly lead us into thinking that what is disinhibited is more real or true than the part of us that inhibits. If we can just peel away repression, suppression, and other defence mechanisms, we will discover the "real" self that lies below. Based loosely on the kind of archaeological approach to intrapsychic structure proposed by Freud, this notion suggests that the personality is constructed in layers, with more true or real features of personality existing at a deeper level.

This is a simplistic interpretation of the much more dynamic psychoanalytic model which states that the inhibitory processes of repression and defence mechanisms are components of personality no less real or important than others. Psychoanalytic clinicians believe that understanding defences is crucial to the success of the therapy because it reveals hidden thoughts, feelings, and needs. Why does a person repress something? Why is it being inhibited? Bypassing defences to get to the "true" self may also bypass the opportunity to discover aspects of the inhibiting self that are just as true. When these defences and elements of the inhibited self are worked through, remnants of them sometimes remain to serve an important function. Sometimes they evolve into productive aspects of one's personality independent of the problematic emotions that were originally defended.

The same is true online. Some people in some online situations become disinhibited and reveal aspects of themselves. However, at the same time, they may not be not grappling with the underlying causes of that inhibition, and therefore are missing an opportunity to discover something important about themselves - something very true about themselves, but often unconscious. If anonymity in cyberspace eases people's anxiety so they are more comfortable to express themselves, then they also are bypassing an essential component of who they are. Important personality dynamics are embedded in that anxiety.

People who are shy in-person may thrive in cyberspace when the disinhibition effect allows them to express who they "truly" are inside. This is a wonderful opportunity for them. But why is Joe's shyness a less true aspect of him compared to other features of his personality, especially given the fact that his shyness is a prominent feature of his day-to-day living? If online companions, who had formed the impression Joe was outgoing, finally met him in-person, might they not conclude that Joe is "really" shy? And what makes him shy? Are there underlying psychological problems and anxieties that caused it? Is it a biologically determined temperament, as much research in developmental psychology suggests about shyness. Aren't these possible causes of his shyness also true aspects of Joe? Here we see the arbitrary nature of the "true self" concept.

Compromise formations: Quite often when people are online and some aspect of their personality is disinhibited, some other aspect of their personality is inhibited. After all, the anonymity that contributes to online disinhibition means that the person is "without a name" - something about that person is not known. In online communication, consciously or unconsciously, people conceal or misrepresent aspects of themselves as often as they honestly reveal aspects of themselves. Any particular media encourages some aspects of identity to be expressed while inhibiting other aspects. Something is revealed while something else is hidden. Expressions of self are compromise formations within any particular media or communication modality. In email Joe reveals for the first time to Sue that "I love you," but his voice and body language, which in-person might reveal unwritten dimensions and even qualifications of his stated affection, are hidden.

This particular example also points to the polarities that operate within the dynamics of personality. Sometimes we act, think, or feel one way, and sometimes the opposite. We have ambivalent, sometimes opposing emotions. Online Joe says that he truly loves Sue, but in-person his voice indicates some doubt. Face-to-face he appears angry and rejecting, but online he admits that he feels insecure and guilty. Different communication environments convey different facets of these polarities in self. Here one side appears, and there another. Neither is more true than another.

Each media allows for a particular expression of self that differs - sometimes greatly, sometimes subtly - from another media. In different media people present a different perspective of their identity. Chat, email, blogs, videocams, telephones, face-to-face conversation, and all types of communication modalities, each uniquely highlight certain aspects of self expression and personal identity, while hiding others. The self expressed in one modality is not necessarily deeper, more real, or more authentic than another. This multiple modality framework for understanding the self-within-media bypasses the tendency to become bogged down in arbitrary arguments about the location of the true or real self. Self Constellations Across Media

The self interacts with the environment in which it is expressed. It is not independent of that environment. If a man suppresses his aggression in life but expresses it online, both behaviours reflect important aspects of his personality that surface under different conditions. If a woman is shy in-person but outgoing online, neither self-presentation is more true than the other. Both are dimensions of who she is, each revealed within a different situational context.

Instead of thinking that personality is constructed in layers with the environment "out there" somewhere, we can conceptualize it as an intrapsychic field containing clusters or constellations of emotion, memory, and thinking that are interconnected with certain environments. Some constellations overlap, others are more dissociated from each other, with environmental variables influencing those levels of integration and dissociation. Personality dynamics involve the complex interactions among these various clusters within the self and in relation to the environment. An extreme version of these dynamics occur in a multiple personality disorder, in which consciousness shifts laterally from one constellation of personality formation to another, with strong dissociative barriers between those formations. In the more "normal" person, the distinction between the formations may be less dramatic, and the dissociative barriers less intense, but the same alterations in identity expression does occur.

These ideas about self constellations extend as far back as William James' theory of consciousness shifting from one focus to another within a field of associations. They also are consistent with contemporary theories about dissociation and the information processing of experience.

Therefore, we can think of the disinhibition effect as a person shifting to an "online" personality constellation that may be dissociated - in varying degrees, depending on the person - from the in-person constellation. Inhibiting guilt, shame, or anxiety may be features of the in-person self but not that online self. This constellations model also helps explain other online phenomena, like identity experimentation, role-playing fantasy games, multitasking projects, and other subtle shifts in personality expression as we move from one online environment to another. In fact, a single disinhibited "online self" probably does not exist at all, but rather a collection of slightly different constellations of emotion, memory, and thinking that surface in and interact with different types of online environments. Different communication modalities enable different expressions of oneself. They allow us to see the different perspectives of that complex thing we call "identity."

This is something to keep in mind for online psychotherapy. Using a multidimensional analysis of the various features of cyberspace, a comprehensive theory of online psychotherapy explores how the design of a computer-mediated environment allows for the inhibition, expression, and development of different aspects of a person's identity.

Altering Self Boundary

My discussion so far rests on the assumption that almost everyone online tends to be disinhibited, even if the effect is small. However, this isn't necessarily the case. Some people feel guarded and suspicious about cyberspace. You don't know who people really are, or how exactly they may be reacting to you behind their typed words. You don't realize who is watching you or what they know about you. You can't trust everyone's intentions. In black hole situations, you send out a message and receive no reply, for reasons not clear. Is anyone really there?

Online environments can stir uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety - even paranoia about the possible mishaps and calamities that may befall you if you venture into the wrong environment or connect with the wrong people. As a result, people sometimes proceed with hesitancy and caution.

Some vacillate between feeling disinhibited and restrained as they move in and out of the various areas of their online lifestyle. They shift up and down what we might consider a disinhibition/inhibition continuum. However, others may feel both ways simultaneously within a particular environment or relationship. For example, you reveal intimate details about yourself to someone you meet online, but you won't give that person your phone number.

How do we explain these alternating as well as concurrent experiences of both an open and guarded self? If we focus just on online disinhibition or only on online suspiciousness, we will overlook an important underlying psychological experience that gives rise to this disinhibition/inhibition polarity. That experience is "self boundary."

Self-boundary is the sense of what is me and what is not me. It's the experience of a flexible perimeter marking the distinction between my personality - my thoughts, feelings, and memories - and what exists outside that perimeter, within other people.

A variety of factors contribute to self-boundary, including the awareness of having a distinct physical body, the perception via the five senses of an outside world, the feeling of a psychological distinction between what I know versus what others know about me, and the sensation of the physical/psychological self moving cohesively along a linear continuum of past, present, and future.

Life in cyberspace tends to disrupt these factors that support self-boundary. The physical body and its five senses no longer play as crucial a role as in face-to-face relationships. What others know or don't know about me is not always clear. The feeling of a linear past, present, and future becomes more obscure as we move back and forth through synchronous and asynchronous communication. As a result, this altered state of consciousness in cyberspace tends to shift or destabilize self-boundary. The distinction between inner-me and outer-other is not as clear. The person shifts to what psychoanalytic theory calls "primary process thinking" in which boundaries between self and other representations become more diffuse, and thinking becomes more subjective and emotion-centred. Within the transitional space of online communication, the psyches of self and other feel like they might be overlapping. We allow the hidden self to surface because we no longer experience it as a purely inner self; but at the same time we also sense, sometimes vaguely and sometimes distinctly, the intrusion of an unknown other into our private world, which results in suspicion, anxiety, and the need to defend our exposed and vulnerable intrapsychic territory.

No doubt, there are important individual differences in how people shift along the inhibition/disinhibition continuum. The effect of inhibition or disinhibition might be weak or strong, depending on the person and the situation. People might experience small or wide oscillations between the two polarities. Some might be more susceptible to inhibition than to disinhibition, or vice versa. Studying what is revealed or hidden about people within the wide range of online environments can become a laboratory for understanding the subtle dynamics of the self.

This is Suler's orignal online article about the ODE, appearing in The Psychology of Cyberspace (2001, revised 2004)

A version of this article was published as: Suler, J. (2004). CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 321-326

Suler expanded on the factors of the ODE in Psychology of the Digital Age (Cambridge University Press, 2016)


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